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Dr. Hyman: Why Eating Fiber Must Be a Part of Your Daily Diet

Insights + Opinion

Imagine eating 12 pounds of food a day and staying thin and healthy.

That is exactly what hunter-gather ate for millennia without any obesity or chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes, cancer or dementia.Today, I wouldn't advise anyone to eat 12 pounds of food each day, because the food in our society lacks one major secret ingredient that our ancestors ate in nearly all their food—fiber!

There is a special super fiber that is much more powerful than regular fiber and can provide a great way for people to lose weight.Shutterstock

You might wonder how fiber can prevent obesity and all of the chronic diseases of aging.

It's actually quite simple. It slows the rate at which food enters your blood stream and increases the speed at which food exits your body through the digestive tract. That keeps your blood sugar and cholesterol in ideal balance, quickly eliminates toxins from your gut and reduces your appetite.

There is a special super fiber that is much more powerful than regular fiber and can provide a great way for people to lose weight. I will tell you about the remarkable discoveries in this area a little later.

First let's learn how this discovery was made and why this super fiber is so important.

Dr. Denis Burkitt, a famous physician, studied the differences between indigenous African Bushmen and their "civilized" western counterparts.

The Bushmen seemed to be free of the scourges of modern life including heart disease, cancer, diabetes and obesity. He found that the average bushman had a stool weight of 2 pounds, while an average civilized man had a stool weight of only 4 ounces. So why the big difference?

In a word: Fiber.

The average American eats about 8 to 15 grams of fiber a day, the average hunter-gatherer ate 100 to 150 grams from all manner of roots, berries, leaves and plant foods. Humans need fiber to keep us healthy from top to bottom, as well as to provide food for the healthy bacteria that work with us to promote health.

How Fiber Prevents and Treats Disease

Research proves that fiber can lower blood sugar as effectively as some diabetic medication and promote weight loss. Fiber is definitely a great ally in the battle of the bulge. If you're diabetic, adding fiber to your diet can even mean that you can cut out insulin. And it's a great natural cure for constipation and irregularity.

But it's also a hero in more serious battles—it's been shown to reduce the risk of colon cancer by as much as a third and breast cancer by almost 40 percent.

One study showed how butyrate, a type of fatty acid made by gut bacteria from certain types of fiber, acts as a switch that turns on the p21 tumor suppressor gene (an anti-cancer gene) and essentially, turns off colon cancer. It also lowers cholesterol and reduces the risk of heart disease by as much as 40 percent.

Insoluble vs. Soluble Fiber

Mostly when people think of fiber, they think of bran. Bran is a wheat fiber that is mostly insoluble and doesn't get digested. Think of it as a scouring pad for your intestines. It's good for getting you regular, but doesn't do the job of soluble fiber—which is the kind found in almost all other plant foods.

The bacteria in your gut metabolize soluble fiber from fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds and most whole grains.

This leads to lower cholesterol, blood sugar and insulin; cancer prevention; balanced hormone levels, removing excess estrogen and reducing the risk of breast cancer; production of vital vitamins and minerals; food production for colon cells; and so much more.

An Ancient Super Fiber

Before I tell you how I want you to increase your fiber intake, I want to tell you about some recent discoveries of an ancient fiber source that can help you lose weight, lower your cholesterol, reduce your appetite and lower your blood sugar more effectively than any other fiber.

It is called glucomannan (GM), a soluble, fermentable and highly viscous dietary fiber. It is derived from the root of the elephant yam, also known as konjac (Amorphophallus konjac or Amorphophallus rivieri), native to Asia.

The konjac tuber has been used for centuries as an herbal remedy and to make traditional foods such as konjac jelly, tofu and noodles. More recently, purified konjac flour or GM has been used as a food stabilizer, gelling agent and supplement. It can absorb up to 50 times its weight in water, making it one of the most viscous dietary fibers known.

In many studies, doses of 2 to 5 grams a day of GM was well-tolerated and resulted in significant weight loss in overweight and obese individuals.

Glucomannan works by promoting a sense of fullness. The fiber pushes more calories out through your colon, rather than letting them be absorbed.

In addition to weight reduction, GM has been studied for its effects on constipation, serum cholesterol, blood glucose, blood pressure and insulin resistance syndrome.

How does it promote weight loss you may wonder?

This fiber lowers the energy density of the food you eat. In other words it bulks up food in your gut, creating a lower calorie content per weight of food you eat. Since fiber has almost no calories but a lot of weight, adding it to the diet lowers the energy-to-weight ratio of the food that is consumed.

Studies show that it is the volume or weight of food that controls our appetite, so the fiber increases the weight without increasing calories. This powerful fiber may control our appetite in other key ways.

For example, it can signal the brain that there is a lot of food in our gut, sending the message to slow down stuffing more food into our bellies. It also moves through the stomach and the small bowel slowly because it is so viscous.

By slowing the rate of food absorption from the gut to the bloodstream, it reduces the amount of insulin produced after a meal, which also controls your appetite.

It may also increase the level of hormones in the gut (such as cholecystokinin), which is another control on the appetite. Lastly, more energy (calories) is lost through the stool because the calories are all soaked into the fiber.

So make sure you eat more fiber, not necessarily in 12 pounds of food a day, but by being smart about what you eat. We should shoot for 30 to 50 grams a day.

How to Boost Your Fiber Intake

Here are some simple suggestions for increasing fiber in your diet:

  • Add 2 tablespoons of ground flax seeds a day to your food. Get a coffee grinder and use it only grinding flax seeds. Grind 1/2 cup at a time and keep it in a tightly sealed glass jar in the fridge or freezer. Sprinkle on salads, grains or vegetable dishes.
  • Eat beans if you can tolerate them (all forms of legumes)—they beat out everything else for fiber.
  • Bulk up on vegetables—with almost no calories, high levels of antioxidants and protective phytochemicals, these excellent fiber sources should be heaped on your plate daily.
  • Add whole grains like brown rice or quinoa if you can tolerate them.
  • Include a few servings of low-sugar fruits to your diet daily (berries are the highest in fiber and other protective phytochemicals).
  • Include a few handfuls of almonds, walnuts, pecans or hazelnuts and seeds like pumpkin, chia and hemp to your diet every day.
  • Start slowly. Switching abruptly to a high-fiber diet can cause gas and bloating. Increase slowly until you get up to 50 grams a day.
  • Consider a good fiber supplement containing soluble and insoluble fibers if you are have trouble getting your fill of fiber (watch for added sweeteners and additives).
  • By now you know that my favorite kind of super fiber is glucomannan or konjac. Many companies sell it in capsule form. I like PGX, produced by Natural Factors. You can take 2 to 4 capsules just before eating with a glass of water. Or take 2.5 to 5 grams of the powder form. Make sure you drink plenty of water throughout the day when taking PGX, as you can become constipated.

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